How the Caribbean Carnival has changed over the years

Photos of the festival throughout the years and the experiences of a longtime volunteer show how far the festival and the city have come.

Photos and the experiences of a longtime volunteer show how far the festival, city have come

Makeda Cespedes shows off her costume at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival's preview of the Junior Carnival Festival on July 16, 2016. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Bright coloured costumes and upbeat music have always been a staple in Toronto's Caribbean Carnival, but longtime volunteer Colin Benjamin says a lot has changed about the festival and the city over the years.

The annual festival, which wraps up with the grand parade on Saturday, was first introduced in 1967. It was known at the time as Caribana and it was envisioned as a week-long celebration of Caribbean culture through traditional cuisine, music and parades. Now three weeks long, it continues to take to the streets of Toronto every year during the month of July.

Here's a look at the festival's evolution over the years.

If you have any photos from the Caribbean Carnival between 1967 and 1980 that you want to share, email them to us at, on Twitter @CBCToronto or through our Facebook page.

A parader shows off her costume while she walks in the Caribbean Carnival parade in 1980. (Dennis Strong/CBC Still Photo Collection)

"This event started as a Caribbean festival, but now it's really become something much more than that," said Benjamin, who has volunteered for over 25 years. 

The Caribbean community walks through the streets of Toronto in 1985, on the 18th anniversary of the Caribbean Carnival. ( Gary Beechey/CBC Still Photo Collection)

In the first few decades the event was run, it was much smaller and far fewer people lined the streets, he said. Almost all of the spectators and participants were from the Caribbean community in Toronto.

Costumes like this one from 1990 are a longtime tradition of the festival. (CBC Still Photo Collection )

"It was nice to see our community come out and have fun, but we wanted the celebration to be huge and reach a much larger audience," he said.

Georgia Smith makes her way along the 34th annual Caribana parade in Toronto Saturday Aug. 4, 2001. (Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press)

In an effort to attract people from farther afield, the Caribbean Cultural Committee - the non-profit organization that planned the event between 1967 to 2006 - sent him to the Caribbean in the early 2000s to promote Toronto's event and recruit more participants. 

That strategy proved successful, and more people from the islands and the United States started visiting.

However, he said that even though organizers were happy to host large crowds of visitors, the committee remained concerned about the lack of Canadian presence.

"We've always wanted it to be just as much of an event for Toronto and for Canada as it has been for us," he said. "That was just not the case back then."

Benne Sutherland dances on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008. (Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press)

The City of Toronto took over the event in 2006, as the Caribbean Cultural Committee faced financial trouble. A rift between the committee and the city over the trademark name Caribana, would see it renamed as the Caribbean Carnival in 2011.

A parader marches out of the judging area at the Caribbean Carnival in Toronto on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

In addition to getting a new name, Benjamin said the festival has seen a lot of change in the past 10 years, as the city evolved.

"This city no longer defines itself with one culture. It's now made up of people with all different kinds of roots and that's created so many more opportunities for celebrations like ours," he said.

As a result, he said the festival's food and music are no longer solely focused on Caribbean culture, and the participants are from a diverse variety of backgrounds. He also said that it now gets support from a number of local businesses who provide food and decorations.

Women sporting their traditional costumes dance their way down the streets of Toronto during the Caribbean Carnival's parade in August 2014. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"People are opening their minds to our culture, so we've opened our minds to theirs, and now cultures all across the board are having fun together," said Benjamin.

He said he believes that having all of these cultures "uniting together" for this celebration holds promise for the years to come.

Masquerade band member Sharon Jones poses for a portrait of her facial adornments. Revelers came together to celebrate the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival grand parade in Toronto on Saturday, August 1, 2015. (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

"Allowing future generations from all kinds of backgrounds to take part in and learn about their heritage and their ancestral culture, is what this festival is all about," he said.

"It creates a space of happiness, inclusion and acceptance, and that's been the goal since the beginning."